Gutpunch: How Jill Abramson's firing confirmed women's worst fears and sent us reeling

Gutpunch: How Jill Abramson’s firing confirmed women’s worst fears and sent us reeling

May 16, 2014

Last night, Ken Auletta of the New Yorker published a follow-up piece to the Jill Abramson firing story. One paragraph from that story took up my entire Twitter feed all evening–the paragraph detailing exactly how much less Abramson had been paid than her predecessor.

Let’s look at some numbers I’ve been given: As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to Keller’s salary that year, $559,000. Her salary was raised to $503,000, and—only after she protested—was raised again to $525,000. She learned that her salary as managing editor, $398,000, was less than that of the male managing editor for news operations, John Geddes. She also learned that her salary as Washington bureau chief, from 2000 to 2003, was a hundred thousand dollars less than that of her successor in that position, Phil Taubman. (Murphy would say only that Abramson’s compensation was “broadly comparable” to that of Taubman and Geddes.)

It hurts to look at that. It really does. Sure, it’s easy to look at that and say “Oh, that’s still a ton of money”–but that’s not the point. The point is that if it’s happening that blatantly, on that high a level, then what the hell is going on down below? I’ll tell you what’s going on down below–according to the number crunchers over at FiveThirtyEight, the average female editor gets paid $8,000 less than her male counterparts.

It hurts to hear that the other issue the New York Times had with Abramson appears to be that she was “pushy” and that she “would regularly question top editors about why the Times did not have certain stories.” Call me crazy, but I think that that as Editor of the New York Times, these things were part of her job. Why would you even want a top news editor to not be pushy, or to not be on top of making sure certain stories get covered?

As women, we grow up hearing about all these double standards. That what’s considered “assertive” for men is considered “pushy” or “bitchy” for women. We grow up hearing about the pay gap, about the glass ceiling. We get told we have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good, and yet it’s hard to fully internalize all of that. We purposely don’t internalize it because if we did we’d be miserable all the time. We have to put it aside most of the time and just concentrate on doing the best we can. We have to hope that the world is better than what we’ve been taught to expect.

It’s not supposed to be right out there in the open where everyone can see. It’s supposed to just be something we vaguely suspect. To have it confirmed, as it was for Jill Abramson, as it was for Lily Ledbetter, is a punch to the gut. It’s not so much about the money as it is about the fact that it sucks to know that you are not as valued, and that the reason you’re not as valued may very well be because you are not a man. Especially if you’re getting paid  less than the guy who’s working under you. It’s demoralizing. You could be making far more than you’d ever need to survive and you’d still feel like shit if you knew for a fact that you were worth less to your employer.

If Jill Abramson was a straight white man who had been getting paid less than her predecessor, she could have chalked it up to maybe, actually, just not being as good. When you’re a woman, or a person of color, you have to ask yourself “Is it because I’m not as good, or does this whole thing have sexist or racist undertones?” Not having to ask yourself that is a huge and often overlooked point of privilege.

The other fear-confirming part of Jill Abramson’s firing is that it comes on the heels of her doing exactly what women have been told to do for the past year or so–”lean in.” Republicans, especially, have been fond of saying that the reason for the pay gap is that women don’t ask for more money.

Yet, we all have it in the back of our head that if we do lean in, if we do ask for more, that we will be fired. That we will be considered “pushy.” That we will be considered a “problem.” We have it in the back of our heads that we can be easily replaced by either a man who “deserves” more or another woman who is willing to put up with less. Which is why even when women know for a fact that they’re being paid less than their male counterparts, they are hesitant to speak up.

I’m not sure why the New York Times thought Jill Abramson was of less value than her predecessor or a man who worked under her. Perhaps it is because we still, on some level, consider the work men do an act of ambition and the work women do as an act of love. Women are supposed to be selfless, supposed to take one for the team, supposed to be grateful that they even have a job, supposed to do most of the unpaid labor around the house without ever asking to be thanked, and they’re supposed to do it because they love you unconditionally. “Greed” in men, is good, it’s productive, it’s how he takes care of his family, while a woman’s “greed” is an anathema to the things we are socialized to value in women. The things we value in our mothers.

But all women are not your mother.

The New York Times lost an incredibly competent and worthy editor because they felt “annoyed” that she expected to be as valued as her predecessor. Someone else will win in this. The times they are a changin’ and the media outlets that are going to win the long term fight are the ones that realize that diversity is an asset, and not just something you have to do to keep people from thinking you’re sexist or racist.

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